1. Josh Stephans

    Josh Stephans New Member

    Nov 26, 2013
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    Kingdom Come

    Discussion in '2013 Science Fiction Writing Contest' started by Josh Stephans, Dec 4, 2013.

    Kingdom Come

    The golden light of dawn poured in through an open window above the bed, bouncing off the wooden walls and casting a warm glow up into the rest of the simple, cozy room. A gentle draft of cool air rolled in with the light, past the open glass and smooth finished oak. It carried with it the clear sound of excited songbirds and the quiet, dying hum of the night bugs, kissing the dark goodbye.

    As the breeze softly brushed Aidan’s hair he let a few preciously painful beams of light flicker into his drowsy eyes. He rolled over to gaze upon his sleeping wife, watching the pale skin of her smooth back rise and fall delicately with each breath. Her flowing brown hair spilled out over the pillows to form a messy grassland of brunette silk against the clean fabric. She was facing away from him, towards the wall, sprawled out with the sheets wrapped around her middle like a twisted skirt. Aidan never loved her more than when she was lying there, peacefully beside him. All there was in the world, at this moment, was he and Tess.

    Before long, the mess of hair that was Aidan’s wife rolled over to greet him. Tess’s sparkling brown eyes peered playfully out of her soft freckled face with all the joy she could muster. Aidan gingerly moved the backs of his fingers along her smooth, smiling cheek.

    “Good morning chickadee.” He whispered with a grin. Tess made a few little tweets like a songbird and giggled.

    “And a good morning to you, Mr. Fish.” She teased. Aidan sucked his cheeks in tight and moved his lips up and down before Tess leaned in and lightly kissed them. “You know if you keep that up, you’ll look like that forever.”

    “Really now?” Aidan raised his eyebrows. “And would you still keep me if I looked like a fish?”

    Tess failed to fight back a snicker and ran her single hand through Aidan’s short blonde beard. “I’m still deciding…” Without loosing a beat, a stray pillow flew from under the covers and landed across Tess’s shoulder. She squealed and smacked her left hand across Aidan’s arm. Thus the morning began. Their laughter quickly filled the little cabin and was answered by the rapid pitter-patter of tiny mischievous feet. Little Reece burst through the door with all the speed his five-year-old body could handle. He took a flying leap and landed square on his father’s stomach. He laughed hysterically as Aidan doubled over in mock pain and held his hand to the sky.

    “I’m dying Reece!” he cried. “Tell your mother… I love her.” Aidan stuck his tongue out and fell backwards over Tess. Reece laughed and jumped up and down on the old springy mattress.

    “Daddy, wake up! Wake up!” He pounced on his dad’s lap and crawled up to his face. “I want breakfast!” Aidan agreed and sat up, still chuckling. He picked up the little boy and carried him on his shoulders to the adjoining room that held their small living area and simple kitchen. Having only three rooms, their little house wasn’t much to look at. But that didn’t matter a bit to Aidan. He had Tess and Reece and that was his world. He opened the window above the thick wooden counter and lit a match to start the wood in the hearth. Soon it was crackling cheerfully and filled the air with the sweet smell of bread and bacon.

    Tess came out into the main room and set the table for breakfast. Reece followed behind her carrying a giant wooden spoon, determined to be the next big village cook. Balancing the plates on both hands, Aidan carried the steaming food down to the table and they dished it into wooden bowls. They bowed their heads, as was tradition, and said thanks for the meal.

    “Daddy?” Reece picked up a new spoon and looked at Aidan. “Why do we do that?”

    “Do what?” Aidan asked.

    “Close our eyes and talk to ourselves?” Tess shot a loaded glance in Aidan’s direction and he let out a thoughtful sigh.

    “Well bud,” Aidan began, leaning forward “A long time ago, there was a place; it was very bad. The king of this place only let his people do what he thought they should do. And this king hurt people who didn’t like him.”

    “Why did he hurt them?”

    “Because he was a very bad man and he did very bad things. When we close our eyes before we eat, we remember the bad place, and we are thankful that we don’t live there anymore.” Reece silently rolled his spoon between his fingers for a moment and then looked up.

    “Did the bad king take your hand away?” A thick silence fell suddenly on the room. Aidan stared into space and absently rubbed the flat end of his wrist where his right hand had once been. Tess did the same to hers. They sat there quietly for a moment more, listening to the snapping of the dying fire and the sound of Reece rubbing a spoon between his both his hands.

    “No.” Aidan finally said, his voice quiet and somber. “No, that was something else.”

    “Aidan,” Tess began, putting her empty wrist tenderly on his shoulder. “I think the dog needs fed. Why don’t you go see how she’s doing?”

    “Alright.” Aidan grabbed his bowl of uneaten food and stood up. He kissed Tess on the top of her head and mussed Reece’s hair before he opened the sturdy front door and walked out into the yard.

    The clean morning air instantly took away the sting of his thoughts and brought a thin smile to his lips. He could tell from the sounds of a small crowd just over the hill that most of the village was up and about. He turned the corner and opened the rough wooden gate that housed the family’s animals. Barking and jumping, Athena wagged her tail emphatically as Aidan came in the entrance. She was not a small pup anymore and she nearly knocked him over with the morning greeting.

    “Whoa there, ‘Thena” Aidan laughed and gave her a handful of bacon from his bowl. She gobbled it up like a wolf and begged for more. Aidan scratched her ears and ruffed her short black hair. “Come on. Lets go for a hunt.” Athena knew what the phrase meant and she bolted out the gate, barking and howling in excitement. Aidan grinned and grabbed his bow and quiver from inside the front door. “I’m going out for a bit. I’ll be back by nightfall.” Tess was sitting close to Reece at the table. She had her good hand around his shoulder and was letting him study the stump on the end of her right arm. They seemed to be quietly talking. Tess smiled at Aidan and waved him away. He smiled back and gently closed the door.

    Aidan came up over the hill and into the main portion of town. The settlement was only a group of rough log houses and a few common buildings. There was place where people could trade their goods, a meeting hall and Weston Fowler had opened a blacksmith’s shop. Aidan knew Weston from back before they had come to the town, almost a decade ago. He was a good man.

    “Ho Aidan!” Weston help up his hammer in greeting as Aidan and Athena passed. Aidan raised his bow and nodded. The blacksmith went back to work, hammering with one hand, and steadying his work with the stump on the other.

    Aidan and Athena were soon on the other side of the village facing a massive green forest and jagged mountain peaks in the distance. What was beyond those mountains frightened Aidan more than he cared to think. But the forest was safe. It was home with its giant wooden pillars and thick leafy ceiling. It hid the village from prying eyes and acted as a source of adventure and security. Aidan loved it. He made a point to go on these hunting trips with Athena as often as he could. He hardly ever came home with meat for the family and Tess knew that Aidan was curiously wandering the vast expanse of forest. But she let him go as he pleased. It was good for his uneasy spirit to get some fresh air.

    There was a perfectly straight stick on the ground and Aidan picked it up. He caught Athena’s attention and hurled it as far as he could into the forest. Athena gave a quick bark and bolted after it, her legs a fast black blur. Aidan tightened the strap that secured the bow to his handless arm, and made his way after her. He tapped his bow on the ground in rhythm with his steps. He used the weapon as a walking stick more and more these days.

    Catching up with Athena, Aidan pushed further into the woods, his gaze shifting from the dazzling green canopy to the rolling slopes of the forest floor. A flock of tiny yellow songbirds burst from a bush up ahead. They squawked and tweeted as they darted in and out of the trees. Their conversation and songs sweetened the air. It wasn’t until Aidan moved to the village that he had heard his first bird. He remembered thinking that the birds were merely a dream. People back in the Kingdom hardly knew what a bird was, much less what it sounded like.

    In the distance, Aidan saw a clearing in the trees, his favorite spot. He called to Athena and broke into a jog. They rounded the bend and came to a long opening in the forest. In the middle of this clearing, the earth had cracked and opened up, forming a long jagged ravine that wove through the forest’s dense heart. It was deep and grey, with a thin stream babbling far below the steep rocky walls. A long forgotten people had built a simple stone bridge, supported by thick wooden beams on each end. It had no railings or ropes and was more of slab of rock than a bridge. Aidan carefully walked out onto the center and sat down, dangling his feet over the smooth edge. Athena trotted up from behind and laid her head on his leg. After loosening his bow from his arm and setting it aside, Aidan took his pipe out of a leather bag. He packed it tenderly and lit it. The sweet smoke rose lazily into the sky and disappeared with the soft breeze.

    The bridge over the ravine was built on a small hill. The ravine cleared an opening through the trees and gave Aidan a perfect view of the mountains. Like sleeping earthen giants, the rocky slopes loomed over the forest below. They were the guardians, protecting the forest from the fires of industry that burned in the eastern lands. Every so often, a thin pillar of black smoke would rise from behind a mountain peak and float away into the clouds. That smoke never failed to remind him of what he had once been.

    Out here in the wilderness, there was nowhere to hide from his thoughts. There were countless memories, burned into his skull with blood and fire. Aidan sat somberly as he watched the cloud of smoke puff up over the mountain and disappear. For the longest time he had lived in fear of becoming that smoke, his body incinerated in the ovens of rebellion and left to the cold, unforgiving atmosphere. He couldn’t begin to count the number of friends that were now smoke and ash. But he knew the cause of the fire.

    He was the fire.

    He liked to think that it was all behind him now. The bloodshed. The brute violence. The screaming. It came back in illusive nightmares at night, leaving him sweating and screaming in bed. It wasn’t his old rank that ripped at his soul, but his actions. The orders he passed down, the commands he gave killed hundreds of innocent citizens. Citizens. The very people he was supposed to protect he hunted down and executed in the name of the King. His scepter was not to be questioned. His evil was to be taken with absolute blindness. Rebellion was not an option and was answered with death. Aidan had lived his life in service of that answer.

    He was death.

    As his pipe slowly burned out, Aidan stared blankly down into the ravine. He watched the thin line of bluish green flow quickly, far beneath him in the mist. How long would it take to fall? Would he feel regret? Anger? Pain? It seemed unjust that he was given life when he dealt in death. A monster like him deserved to die. For what Aidan had done, he wanted to die. The moment his body hit the water and rock, the pain would disappear. That eternal grinding of the King’s hand and the ceaseless burning remorse would be gone in an instant. For the first time in his life, Aidan could be free.

    Free of the King.

    Aidan caught himself leaning dangerously forward off the bridge. He pushed back and quickly regained his balance. That was enough. Petting Athena’s short black coat calmed him and he gave a quiet sigh. The sun was on its way down and he decided that he should be getting back to Tess and Reece. As he put his pipe away Athena sat up sharply and pointed her face to the mountains. She snarled loudly and took a few weary steps back towards solid ground. Aidan had only seen Athena truly frightened maybe once. He could tell she was completely unnerved.

    “’Thena,”Aidan stood up and tightened his bow to his arm. “What’s wrong?” He knelt down and patted her head a few times. She continued backing away, growling and whimpering. Aidan stared out into the distance. The mountains were exactly where they had always been, grey and stoic. A puff of smoke faded into the blue sky and a trio of birds swooped lazily in the air currents, high above the earth. He watched the birds, just black dots against the blue, circle and sway in their heavenly dance. Abruptly, they shifted course and grouped themselves close together, becoming an almost solid dark shape. Aidan stood on the bridge gazing intently into the sky as Athena broke into a high-pitched, squealing bark. A deep, low rumble descended from above and the dark shapes grew larger. The muted growl intensified. Soon a roar like thunder shook the ground and rocks and pebbles bounced around on the stone and off into the ravine. Aidan stood still on the bridge. His heart sank and all the terror he had been fighting for the last decade came crashing down in a tidal wave of icy dread and uncontrollable despair. The silhouettes continued to grow and the thunder that followed was deafening and painful. Aidan fell to his knees and screamed at the top of his lungs in rage and agony, his mouth silent against the shriek of approaching darkness. He keeled over onto his back, weeping and shaking as the shadows soared towards him. The King had come.

    The hulking grey form of a Scepter Class troop transport, escorted by two stocky black gunships, each bearing the white crown of the King on their underbellies, ripped through the sky above the forest and barreled towards Aidan. Their engines screeched and spat fumes. In perfect formation they tore over the bridge, their shadows blotting out the sun and kicking up a wave of dust and debris. They were dragons, unstoppable beasts bent on blood and destruction. Aidan stared horrified as the ships roared overhead. They swooped low over the trees and shot westward towards the village.

    Aidan stumbled off the bridge shaking and crying. Athena shot off into the woods and disappeared. He tried to call her back but the words didn’t come out. Blind with rage and fear, Aidan sprinted alone into the forest, incoherent ire pouring from his mouth. The rapid thumping of a gunship’s rocket pods echoed through the woods, followed by the sharp buzzing of a rotary gun. Aidan ran faster and faster, his feet flying against the ground. The sound of destruction grew louder and clearer. He could make out the familiar sound of small, powerful explosions and the loud snapping of energy rifles. He moved faster, tripping and falling over the leafy ground. Hot tears blinded his vision. All he could picture was Tess and Reece, gunned down by Kingdom soldiers and their bodies littered about the village. He cried out at the thought of it and tore franticly through the forest, his muscles burning. It was a nightmare come to life. No matter how hard he tried, his legs refused to give him the speed he needed to get home. A few final pops snapped in the air and a single explosion shook the earth. The sound of gunships faded into the distance. Then silence.

    After a desperate eternity, Aidan broke through the forest wall and out into the village clearing. He stumbled up a hill, urging his exhausted body to move and looked out on what was once the serene village. The desolation and despair kicked him hard in the chest. A hundred fires gleamed through piles of wreckage and spat black smoke into the air. Only a few buildings were standing, still burning. Most had been reduced to smoldering heaps or wide scattered splinters. Through the haze, Aidan could make out the shapes of broken bodies strewn aimlessly about the ground. He took a step down and walked numbly through burning debris and bloody corpses towards his home. The smell of smoke and stench of seared flesh, mixed with the stinging chemical odor of expended energy canisters made Aidan’s eyes water. He lurched forward and vomited until nothing more came out. Clutching his stomach, he stood up and waded further into the blinding fog, completely broken.

    On the ground ahead of him, a woman lay face down, the back of her head an empty bloody crater. Tess. Aidan shook, weeping as he knelt down and rolled the woman over. It wasn’t Tess. It was the village baker. She stared blankly up at Aidan, a single charred hole burned into the side of her forehead. Aidan gently closed her empty eyes and continued on. He passed several more bodies; each one had been shot cleanly or suffered some devastating explosive force. Finally, he came to the threshold of his home. It was a smoking pile of fragmented wood. There was a single bloody foot lying still on the ground in front of him. Once more, Aidan fell to the ground and heaved in terror and disgust. The ache and anguish consuming his spirit was completely crushing. It set his mind on fire and clawed violently in his chest. The heat and pressure of loss he felt on the back of his neck burned like he had never felt. Everyone was gone, there wasn’t a soul left. They were just gone.

    “Tess!” Aidan screamed as loud as he could and spun around. “Reece!” He cried out, over and over again until his voice gave out, hoping for an answer and knowing none would come. The only response was the quiet crackle of fire. In a wave of sorrow, he rolled onto his back and glared up at the dark sky, blotted out by smoke. He let loose a loud, hoarse cry and broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. His town was dead. Tess was dead. Reece was dead. The soldiers had killed them.

    He had killed them.

    Aidan was no different from the King’s men. He was one of them, and always would be; reaping death and destruction wherever he went. No doubt, the soldiers were looking for him, The Deserter. They were hunting the infamous and cowardly commander who stood up to the King by fleeing over the forbidden mountain. In not finding him, they torched his home and killed his family. They came for Aidan and found the village. There was nothing he could have done to stop them.

    “Dad?” a small, quite voice asked behind him. Aidan spun around and wiped his teary eyes. Reece’s little form walked slowly out of a dark cloud of smoke. He was covered in soot and his head was bleeding.

    “Oh my God!” Aidan stood and rushed to Reece. He swooped him up in his arms and squeezed the child tight. “Reece, Reece. I’m here Reece, I’m here.” Reece was silent; shell shocked. He stared blankly ahead into nothing, his eyes barely moving and his little mouth pursed tight. He hung limp in his father’s embrace. Aidan looked at his son. “Reece, where is your mom?” Reece gave him an empty gaze, and said nothing. Aidan asked again, his eyes filling with water. Reece shifted and looked to the bloodied foot lying by what was left of their home. Chills rushed down Aidan’s spine and he clenched Reece tighter. “Damn it, Reece! Where is Tess?”

    “Mom said to run.” Reece mumbled, glaring straight ahead, his mind dreadfully trying to form words. “But she didn’t.”

    “No.” Aidan set Reece on the ground and fell to his knees in front of the flames. “God.” That was all he said. The sadness didn’t come and the words wouldn’t form. He just sat there, kneeling silently on the ground with Reece, watching his house crumble in the red flames.

    They sat in silence until a sharp metallic click accompanied the kiss of cold metal on the back of Aidan’s head. The sound of rushing boots and whirring energy weapons disturbed the still, hot air. The soldiers had been waiting.

    “Do not move. By the order of the Almighty King,” A stern voice said strongly, unfeeling. “You are now in custody for crimes of high treason against the Kingdom. You are sentenced to public execution in two hours time on King’s Hill. Any resistance will be met with force. Do not move.“

    Aidan hung his head and took a slow, controlled breath. A thick black hood was whipped over his face and several strong, gloved hands forced his arms into submission. He heard the harsh crackle of static shackles, the kind used to shock prisoners into submission.

    The instant Aidan felt the cuffs tingle against his skin he dropped quickly to the ground and latched on to the hands holding his restraints. He jerked sideways and, still blind from the hood, drew the soldier’s armored body in to cover his own. He knew the armor and flesh would block most of the fired bolts. A hurricane of white-hot light flashed around Aidan. The soldier he was holding slumped down and convulsed from the wave of rounds he absorbed. The storm of energy stopped suddenly. Aidan knew it would take the soldiers a single, rapid moment to reload their weapons. He kicked his shield forcefully away and heard the sound of body armor crunching. He ripped off the hood to face his attackers; ten or so grey armored soldiers with sharp black crowns painted boldly on their breastplates.

    In a single bound, Aidan reached the first soldier who had just snapped a new energy cartridge into his black rifle. Aidan slammed a fist down on the weapon, wrenching it from the man’s hands. He whipped a single elbow into his nose, spraying blood into the air. As the soldier fell, Aidan grabbed the handle of a knife from the soldier’s belt, letting his momentum unsheathe the blade. He dealt a sharp kick to the next combatant’s knee with a resounding crack and drove the knife directly into a small gap in the armor above his neck. The man groaned and stumbled back. The whirr of a ready rifle sounded from a few meters to Aidan’s left. With complete accuracy, the knife left his hand and buried itself into a soldier’s throat. Another came at Aidan from behind and wrapped a rifle around his neck. Aidan grabbed the weapon and using his body as a pivot, slammed the soldier hard on the ground then put a foot through his head. A blast of white light screamed over his shoulder. Aidan ducked, turned and ran himself headlong into a pair of soldiers. He brought the palm of his hand into the first soldier’s mouth and continuing upward, grasped the second man’s head between both arms. With unforgiving force he brought a knee up into the soldier’s skull. He then deftly drew the handgun from the man’s vest and rested his left hand on his right arm. Two in the chest. One in the head. Just like the Kingdom trained him.

    Aidan squeezed the trigger as fast as he could. An almost continuous stream of blinding energy poured from the red-hot barrel. He put down as many rounds as he could before the remaining soldiers even had time to react. Blood and burned flesh splattered up in all directions as the soldier’s thick grey armor did little to protect them from Aidan’s furious accuracy. A second more passed and a single energy cartridge clinked to the ground, empty. The soldiers fell simultaneously, in a bloody heap of flesh and blackened armor. Off to the side, a single lingering soldier hit in the neck and struggling to crawl away, cried out in pain. Aidan knelt down and ripped a new canister from an anonymous body. He snapped it solidly into his weapon and marched in a dead line to the wounded man. He kicked him over on his back and steadied his weapon.

    “By order of the Almighty King.” Aidan growled and fired point blank into the man’s head and chest until his dark gun ran out of light.

    Once again, the village fell deathly silent. It was almost night and the last dying rays of sunlight burned dimly through the clouds of smoke. Aidan dropped his gun and turned around. Reece stood over the still corpse of one of the soldiers; the same expressionless look on his face.

    “He is dead.” The boy said plainly.

    “Hey, Reece, look away.” Aidan rushed over and turned his son from the destruction he had caused. “Come here, come here.” He knelt down and held Reece close. “I did what I had to do to keep you safe. Do you understand?”

    “Yes.” Reece answered and pointed towards the mountain. “There are birds.” Aidan turned to see three small dots in the dusky sky. The gunships were returning. Aidan stood quickly. He scavenged a rifle from one of the soldiers and looted every spare energy canister and grenade he could find, sticking them in a leather bag at his side. “Lets go. Now.” Holding the rifle one handed, he picked up Reece with his remaining arm and took off towards the only safe place he knew.

    Second Squad’s radio link lit up suddenly in a burst of screaming and rifle fire. Captain Hede whirled around to face the helmet feed from his squad leader. A single man with speed and strength like he had never seen was tearing a bloody swath through his men.

    The Deserter.

    All this time and he was just over the Forbidden Mountain. Hede smashed his fist into the console as the feed went dead in a hail of hot light and dying cries and he smiled. They had him at last.

    “Pilot!” He yelled over the stunning roar of the gunship’s aft engines, slapping the droid on its red metal shoulder plate. “Land right on top of the assembly area. Squad two is down and we need reinforcements on the village now.” The mech nodded and the ship veered sharply to the left. Hede strapped his helmet on tight and pulled the dark visor over his eyes. He slipped a thin wire into the metal port on his neck. Instantly a kaleidoscope of glowing green numbers and symbols exploded to life on the display. Linked directly to his nervous system, The Captain and his armor became one. He slipped an E-03 light rifle off the wall rack and rested it on his shoulder. Simultaneously scanning the weapon status on his visor, and watching the ground rush up to meet them out the open armored doors, the captain turned to the quiet mass of jet black armor sitting on benches that lined the gunship’s hull.

    “Listen up!” The minute head motions of his elite soldiers told Hede they were listening with all the attention men bred for war could give. They obeyed orders like sheep and fought like wolves. “Second Squad had been eliminated. I would task Third Platoon but we need someone in reserve. Even if he is a sniveling traitor, the Deserter is a dangerous man. If given the chance he will kill you without remorse or hesitation. Keep in mind, he was one of us. One of the best. He went through the same training, the same schools and wore the same armor. Do not underestimate him. The Almighty King has ordered we bring him back alive. He will be executed the moment we reach King’s Hill. Everyone tracking?”

    “Roger!” The men responded in a single terrifying shout. They were a living organism, each part raised since birth to be part of a ruthless killing machine.

    “Do not forget what this man has done.” Hede lifted the bolt on his rifle. “He has spat in the King’s face and abandoned the Kingdom’s army in its time of need. Remind me what this man deserves!”

    “Death!” was the unified response. Hede braced himself against the handrails as the gunship slowed and hovered inches from the ground, spraying up dirt and smoke in all directions.

    “And who are we?!” He screamed, slamming the rifle bolt down with a sharp clank and the hiss of compressed energy.

    “We are Death!” the soldiers smashed fists on their breastplates in complete unison.

    “Then lets do our job!” Hede leaned out the door. “For King and Kingdom. Move!” He stepped out of the gunship and took off in a dead sprint towards second squad’s position. Rocks and clumps of earth clinked and smacked against his armor in the downdraft of hot engines. In an instant, he cleared the buffeting winds and continued onward, knowing his men had lined up in formation behind him. They reached the bodies in under a minute.

    “My God.” The Captain murmured under his breath. The corpses of an entire squad were thrown haphazardly around a small, smoldering cabin. Some of them had their visors smashed in. Others looked like they had taken full canisters to the open joints of their armor. It was a mess. Hede knew it was a soldier’s duty in life to die, but the sheer violence that brought them down was something to behold. He couldn’t figure out whether to be sickened or impressed. He would decide after he came face to face with the Deserter.

    “Sergeant.” Hede called out to the man at the front of his squad. The clacking of armor said his sergeant was at attention. “Secure the area. Tell your men I want 360-degree security until we can figure out where the Deserter went. Flick on your night vision as well, I’m not loosing anyone to the terrain.”

    “Yes Sir.” Was the response and the soldiers spread out quickly to form a perimeter around the scene, their weapons aimed out into the looming darkness. Hede knelt down next to one of the bodies. The man’s face had been completely shattered. The soldier next to him had a knife handle protruding from his neck. The Deserter had not lost an ounce of the charm he was famous for back in the Kingdom. The Captain scanned the dirt for signs and information. A few gas canisters lay charred and empty amidst the tiny pieces of shattered grey armor and pools of blood. A footprint here, a scuff mark there. The earth never lied.

    Captain Hede followed the streaks and blood spatters until he came to an interesting set of footprints. One large, wearing boots. The other was drastically smaller and without shoes. A child, maybe. Hede looked again. It was definitely a child, a lost mind ripe for the King’s plucking. He flipped on his thermal scanner and his eyes swept the now color coded ground. The residual heat from the fight was still all yellows and whites, with a bright set of footprints headed off towards the deep forest. He had to admire the Deserter. He was resourceful. The woods would be the hardest place to track him, especially at night.

    “Alright they ran into the forest on foot!” Hede stood and the perimeter broke up and spread as he barked out orders. “I want red team on me. Gunships will provide air support and additional thermal tracking. Keep your weapons ready and steady. Second team! Yellow on-“ Something hit him hard in the back and he almost fell. His weapon was ripped from him and one of his legs was jerked back. He turned around instantly and drew his sidearm. His visor flashed a thousand little green symbols in rapid succession. A large black shadow gnawed at his shin armor, growling ferociously. Hede lashed out and grabbed at the furry beast, it’s teeth snapping and biting. He let out a sharp laugh as he realized it was someone’s scruffy dog. He tightened his grip around the creature’s neck. It yelped loudly, kicking all fours franticly. With a single arm, the Captain lifted the large animal over his head, pumped its stomach full of burning light and tossed the body aside like a doll. His soldiers howled with laugher as he smeared the mongrel’s blood on his black armor and retrieved his rifle. He lifted the weapon above his head and the soldiers moved into the woods like dark, hellish wraiths.

    This is what he lived for.

    Blinded by complete darkness, his body aching from loss and sheer exertion, Aidan tore through the forest carrying Reece in one arm. He hadn’t stopped running since he left the village and his body threatened to give out. But he pounded onward, deeper into the forest. Every so often the scream of a gunship would pass in the distance, getting louder each time it arrived. Death was coming for Aidan, closing its black talons in around him with each passing moment. It was all he could do to escape its grip.

    They came to a small rock outcropping deep in the trees and Aidan collapsed. His breathing was deep and rasping as he gulped in desperate pants of air. He lay clutching his side, trying to regain his breath as Reece stared at him.

    “Are the bad people gone?” Reece asked.

    “No,” Aidan managed through gasping, “They’re following us.”

    “Will they stop?” The little boy scanned the dark sky, looking for any sign of the strange and terrifying gunships.

    “They wont ever stop.” Aidan replied, wincing. “Which is why I need to get you to a safe place. “

    “Where is safe?”

    “I don’t know.” Aidan was loosing control. “I don’t know.” After a moment, Reece interrupted his father’s labored breathing.

    “Where is mom?”

    “What?” Aidan rolled over to face his son. The child shook as he wrestled with a dawning reality.

    “If mom isn’t here,” Reece balled up his fists and fought for the right words. “Then where is she?”

    “Somewhere else.”

    “No,” Reece’s face contorted into a sorrowful frown. “Where?” Aidan didn’t have the heart to tell the broken boy the truth and didn’t have the strength to deal with the black grief creeping in on his soul.

    “She went away for a while. But she’ll be back.”

    “I know what dead means.”

    This took Aidan aback and he felt a tear escape down his cheek. He took his son by the hand and laid him across his chest. Reece rose and fell with Aidan’s breathing, slower and more controlled now that they had stopped. Neither had the will to move and they simply lay on the cool ground, listening to the ships growing louder.

    What more could be done? Aidan shook his head. What if they did escape? There was nothing to live for. Not anymore. Tess was dead. The village was gone. The soldiers would inevitably find them and execute him in broad daylight. With a single shot to the head, he would be a message to the masses, swift and gory. They wouldn’t dare kill Reece though. The Kingdom’s child laws made young minds a precious asset to society. The King would send the boy to a children’s camp far, far away to be reconditioned. Reece would learn to love the King and his rules and his violence. He would memorize the King’s pledge and all the laws and protocols. Just as Aidan had been taught as a child, the King would be his god. Reece would inevitably become a small, brainwashed cog in a twisted and unstoppable machine. Reece would degrade into everything Aidan hated himself for being.

    There had to be something he could do to stop the King’s fist. But how could a single man stop the momentum of an entire civilization? Hope was failing fast and yet, the little heart beating above his own let a glimmer of light into the black. If not for his own sake, Aidan had to live, had to fight. He was the only thing his son had left. And he would die for his son.

    A gunship screeched through the trees off to the right. Aidan saw the orange glow of its engines and the earth shook. A few distant shouts echoed off the trees behind them. The soldiers were getting close.

    “Reece, stand up now!” Aidan jumped to his feet and picked up his child. Reece clasped his hands around Aidan’s neck and buried his face in his shoulder. If anything could be done to save Reece, he would do it and do it well. A plan began to form. He had the training, a good rifle and his leather bag was filled to the brim with ammunition and explosives. Aidan took a deep breath and took off once more into the night, his heart and mind racing. He checked the small green light on the side of his weapon and it whirred coldly. Whether it be by his own bloody hand or in a flood of light and fire, Aidan would make the soldiers pay for what they had done.

    He would burn the Kingdom to the ground.

    “Sir, the heat signatures are getting stronger. We’ll be on top of them in under five.” Hede’s Sergeant reported, motioning to somewhere in the dark distance.

    “Good.” The Captain responded, hefting his rifle and checking the squad’s status in his visor. “Keep everyone on their feet.” He opened an audio line to the gunship. “How’s it looking from up there?”

    “Haven’t found them yet, Sir.” The voice crackled in reply. “But their heat trail is getting brighter. We are almost there.”

    “Pilot, fall back to our position.” Hede motioned for one of his squad leaders to loop around a thick nest of brush. “We need overhead support when we find the target.”

    “Roger. I’m looping… wait.” The pilot’s mechanical voice paused for a brief instant. “Sir, I found him.” Hede grinned and pumped his fist. “He is running north at fourteen degrees, three hundred meters from your current position. “

    “We found him!” Hede shouted and broke into a sprint. “Stay on me!” His men followed like a pack of wolves, darting in and out of the trees. “Pilot, hold your fire until we arrive. Stick a spotlight on him and do not let him leave your sight!”

    “Understood sir.” A brilliant white light burst from the trees ahead, casting long dark shadows across the forest floor. The Captain raised his weapon. The target reticule flashed in his visor, picking up any object that could be deemed a threat. The rest of the squad held their rifles tight, sighting the short barrels into the trees ahead, knees bent and running. Their pitch-black armor stood in stark contrast to the glowing white light that poured in from the sky. They never ceased to amaze Captain Hede. His soldiers really were death.

    “Sir” The pilot called in from the gunship. “The fugitive is armed.”

    Damn it.

    “He is equipped with a single E-07 Automatic rifle and it looks like he has a small object in his hand.”

    “What is it pilot?” He responded and motioned for his squad to pick up the pace.

    “I cannot define it at this time.” The mech responded. ”He appears to be throwing it into the air.”

    “Pull up!” Hede screamed into his headset. “Get the hell out of there!” But it was too late. The first grenade hit the low flying gunship with a sharp explosion and the shatter of glass. Darkness swallowed the forest. A second grenade was sucked up into the engine intake with a terrible rattling sound. The sky turned orange and the earth shook as the gunship broke in two with a violent blast of fire. The cockpit sunk like a rock and hit the ground with a tremendous crash. The back half twirled and spiraled out of control, the remnants of its engines screaming loudly and spewing flames. It spun around precariously and headed straight for the soldiers.

    “Get down!” Captain Hede screamed, dropping to the ground as his visor display surged with red impact warnings. The flaming wreckage slammed into the treetops to his right, taking with it giant splinters of wood. It continued its screeching decent and bounced off several thick trees before burying itself in the dirt with a geyser of fire and jagged shrapnel. There was a brief moment of silence. Then a high-pitched squeal pierced the air. The rocket pods ignited all at once and without their housings in place, they exploded out in a hundred different directions. The forest was once again bright as day, with a spider web of brilliant blue vapor trails branching off the hulk of burning metal like streaks of lightning. The rockets twirled and twisted like a swarm of angry metal bees before detonating against whatever they hit. Hede stared in horror as the first blue light disappeared into a soldier’s chest. The bright explosion of gore and shards of armor killed several other men next to him. Another landed off to the right in a blinding flash of orange. Hede felt his eardrums burst and his eyes swam with tears and light as incoming shrapnel shattered his visor. Like a field of hellish flowers, the rockets rained down on everything in sight, throwing up unforgiving balls of blinding fire and heat. Several trees collapsed like burning giants as the warheads detonated against their trunks. Men were thrown aside like ragdolls. Two of the wicked projectiles landed just a few meters from Hede with a splash of fire. The explosions were silent in his broken ears and he felt the walls of his chest shudder under the ruthless shockwave. A horde of shrapnel broke through his leg armor in a puff of bloody vapor and he was thrown forcefully backwards into a thick tree with an awful crack. Completely stunned, with blood pouring through the holes in his armor, Hede fell to the ground. He lay still until the cacophony of explosions finally fell silent and the air ceased to rain dirt and blood. The chaos gave way to utter silence and a single, dark specter emerged from the smoke.

    Aidan walked gravely into the devastated clearing that had been ripped into the forest by force and fire. He surveyed, once more, the death he had created. Men, or at least pieces of them were scattered about like fallen leaves. The forest glowed orange with fire and the smell of burning metal permeated the air. He thought of Reece, hidden deep in the forest where another village could find him. Was all this death a fair payment to save Reece’s life? Aidan didn’t know.

    Up ahead, he spied a single, lone survivor squirming at the base of a massive, blackened tree. The soldier’s dark armor dripped with blood and the glass of his visor was gone. Aidan approached the man, rifle at the ready. It was clear he wasn’t a threat. The sheer concussive force of the rockets threw the soldier into a complete daze. Aidan knelt down in front of him and noticed the yellow bands across his arm. A Captain. He stared into the man’s face and saw only himself. The strong jaw, close cropped hair, the black eyes brimming with hatred. No doubt, they shared the same life, the same memories. All soldiers did. They were bred from birth and trained since childhood to exterminate and destroy. The king controlled what they ate, where they slept. They had no family. No bride. No friends. Only death. Aidan knew there was no difference between them.

    The soldier tried grabbing for his handgun, but it had been lost in the explosions. He gave up his struggle and looked at Aidan, as if surrendering. “I’m not...” Aidan began, his mind numb and gone. He knelt there for a long while, gazing upon the soldier, the mirror of his past. He focused in on the silver band around the warrior's wrist. Those little bracelets sucked the life out of the human soul wherever they went. Wired forcefully and permanently into their hosts by means of neural and skeletal tethers, the strips of metal and circuitry told you what to do and when to do it. Disobey, and the police were on you in a breathe with their clubs and guns. They were how the king held on to his kingdom. It was funny, how such a little band of metal could subjugate a civilization. Aidan looked at his empty arm; the wrist and hand long gone. His vision blurred and gave way to a surreal world. The sound of approaching gunships faded away and the forest, littered with burning wreckage and broken bodies, fell into the black, empty void of Aidan’s thoughts. The soldier and Aidan were all that existed. Even when the gunships hovered overhead, dropping down soldier after soldier, Aidan couldn’t tear his gaze from the wounded man, in every way a reflection of himself. And yet, Aidan saw that vastly different fires burned inside the soldier and himself, one of burning hatred, and the other of something deeper than any finite passion. Even as a horde of soldiers viciously beat him to the ground, Aidan knew that he was different from them. He wasn’t death, after all.

    “Sir!” Some anonymous soldier helped Captain Hede to his feet. “Sir, are you all right?”

    His head spinning, Hede took a breath. “I’m fine.” He looked around the burning forest, now filled with bustling armor. A gunship landed carefully in front of him, blowing flames up in the air. “Where is the Deserter?” The soldier motioned to a man, alive, but laying still and bloodied on the ground.

    “He’s not getting up sir.” The soldier said plainly.

    “Load him up in ship with the woman.” Hede tried to clear the fogginess from his mind.

    “His wife?”

    “Yes. They can die together at the King’s hand in front of a whole city.” He paused. “Damn poetic.” The man on the ground struggled to stand up at the mention of his wife. He groaned and started screaming incoherently. The gunship doors opened with a hiss to reveal a single woman, beaten and disheveled. She saw the man on the ground and darted out the doors past her security.

    “Grab her!” Hede shouted. The woman pushed past two of the soldiers on a dead sprint to the Deserter. Instinctively, one of the men on the gunship raised his rifle and cleanly put two blinding white bolts of energy in the prisoner’s back. She crumpled to the ground and was still. The Deserter screamed, reaching for the fallen woman. He roared in anger and forcefully shook off the men holding him down. Hede ripped a rifle from a nearby soldier. The Deserter turned around just in time for the Captain to sight in the weapon. There was a brief, still moment and Hede pulled the trigger. A brilliant beam of light left a deep hole in the Deserter’s chest, expelling a puff of black mist. Then another ripped through his skull and he fell without a sound. Hede shook his head. Crazy fools. Cutting off their hands and throwing away their lives. This is why the walls were built; to keep people sane. Out here in the wilderness, all humanity abandoned them.

    There was a peculiar scream from off in the woods and a tiny figure bolted out of the darkness. It was a child. Hede lowered his weapon. This was the boy who left his footprints in the village. The Deserter had a son. The crying kid bolted in and around the soldiers and desperately latched himself onto the dirty, black armor of Hede’s leg. He looked down on the terrified child, holding his leg with small, fragile wrists; he had never seen someone without a bracelet.

    “Sir, what do you want us to do with him?” a soldier called out, gripping his rifle. The scene took Hede aback and he felt his chest empty. The Deserter, in the ultimate act of grace, let Hede keep his life. He could have just as easily filled him with light and fire and taken out the next gunship full of troops. So, why was he dead? Why was this boy’s life now in Hede’s hands? He could let the child go; running free into the dark and repay the kindness the Deserter showed Hede in the last breaths of his life. He stared at the boy’s bare wrists, clinging tightly to his leg. The child whimpered in desperation, glowing tears running down his face. For the first time, the Captain felt his soul cry out. It was God or fate or destiny.

    But Hede remembered that God was dead. His fate was to die on the field and his destiny was sealed the moment he came out of a cold artificial womb. In the scheme of all eternity, there was no higher calling than to serve the King. Beyond the walls of the Kingdom, there was nothing.

    Captain Hede pried the boy off his leg and gave the order.

    He was death.

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